“It’s a musical about redemption,” Jack O’Brien says. “I don’t think it’s a musical about all the darkness in the world or even domestic violence. I think it’s about the fact that we’re—all of us—flawed, and all of us need attending.” O’Brien is talking about his current Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1945 musical, Carousel, which earned him a 2018 Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Director of a Musical.
The musical, based on the 1909 Ferenc Molnár play Liliom and long-considered one of the greatest in Broadway history, tells of the ill-fated love between Maine millworker Julie Jordan and carnival barker Billy Bigelow, Billy’s suicide after a bungled robbery attempt, and his return to Earth seeking redemption after an encounter with a heavenly Starkeeper. Featuring such great Rodgers and Hammerstein songs as If I Loved You, Soliloquy, and You’ll Never Walk Alone, the productions runs at the Imperial Theatre, where it stars 2018 Tony nominees Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry, Renée Fleming, Lindsay Mendez, and Alexander Gemignani.
O’Brien, 78, has been working on Broadway for more than a half-century and was artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego from 1981 to 2007. He has won three Best Direction Tony Awards, for Hairspray (2003), Henry IV (2004), and The Coast of Utopia (2007). Below, he speaks about his long career, how he directs, Carousel and the controversy that surrounds its depiction of spousal abuse, and his future plans.
Why he wanted to direct:
“I don’t think I did [want to direct]. I lost my hair at 21 so I knew that beauty was out of the bargain. I had this extraordinary experience. I wrote this book Jack Be Nimble because of my involvement with Ellis Rabb’s APA-Phoenix Repertory Company, which was a visiting troupe at the University of Michigan when I was a student, and they sort of swept me up. I had the greatest post-graduate career of education of anybody of my generation. I was the assistant to directors [The Royal Family Tony winner] Ellis Rabb, John Houseman, [Tony recipient] Eva Le Gallienne, [five-time Tony nominee] Alan Schneider, and [two-time Tony nominee] Stephen Porter. I was the only assistant, because they couldn’t afford much more of a staff. I took everybody’s notes for six years, including assisting Le Gallienne when she did The Cherry Orchard with Uta Hagen. I wrote this book basically about this accidental situation where I found myself with the seminal touring American repertory company of the 20th Century. By the time it disbanded there was no help for me. I had to be a director.”
His principles of directing:
“I’ve done classics and Shakespeare and new pieces and revivals and all sorts of stuff, and I’ve done opera and television. But the more I work, the less I feel I know. I think what a director really does is try to get the text as truthfully as possible. And that’s both true and painful, but it’s indicative of what you do whether it’s a musical or Shakespeare.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“I try not to fingerprint the performance. I try to help them discover what I would like them to discover while all the time making them sure it’s they who are doing the work. Sometimes really good actors will say, ‘Give me a line reading,’ and if they’re really, really clever, I do it. Because I’ll realize I’m talking around it, and they want to hear it. But that’s an almost sinful exception. I never want to do that. I want them to see where we’re headed and find their way there, so that the performance belongs to them and not to me.”
“I don’t know that it was something I wanted to direct. It popped up on [producer] Scott Rudin’s extraordinary radar, and he happily thought of me. But what he couldn’t know was that I had made my stage debut at the University of Michigan in 1959 as Mr. Snow in Carousel and it was a seminal moment in my life, because even though I had no ideas of continuing as a performer, it set the [need] deep in my throat and I never could shake it. Not so much just Carousel but the whole industry. I think that was probably the turning point in the early part of my life. I suddenly realized I was sunk. I belonged to this profession in some capacity, and I was going to have to work it out.
“Coming back to it many years later it was a great gift—a glimpse in a rear-view mirror I do not possess. I never really think of what’s past but only what’s in front of me. It forced me to look back over these years and these assignments and this remarkable career and take stock. It was great to embrace it and also learn to respect a new sensitivity, because our time is very different from 1945. And the issues are very different, and we had to listen with our ears to the ground to the heartbeat of this piece very carefully.
“[Because it’s about redemption,] I focused very strongly on the latter third of the show, which is when Billy goes to heaven. I wondered why the Starkeeper was so lenient with him, why the Starkeeper gives him chance after chance to redeem himself when, in fact, he’s been a complete asshole through most of the evening. And I chose to keep the Starkeeper in the action from the very beginning of the show quietly through it, and you’re aware of him, so when Billy gets to heaven you know exactly who the Starkeeper is, and it actually balances the drama in a very interesting way.”
The Carousel controversy, the original script’s apparent acceptance of male violence toward women with Billy hitting Julie, and their daughter:
“I didn’t want to apologize for it. [The musical’s] pedigree is inestimable. It bears one of the great theatre works of European history at its core. Also, I’m more inclined these days to look darker things in the face than people did when entertainment was sheer entertainment. That’s what is so remarkable about Carousel—the richness of the canvas and how many unbelievably different veins it seems to touch. In light of the political climate today, had we done it a year ago, would we be addressing it in quite the same way? I did not want to focus on the domestic violence aspect of it any more than I wished to in a sense make a point by nontraditional casting. And both of those things in a rather remarkable way blended, by being cautious about overdoing or ignoring certain aspects of it.
“[Director] Nicholas Hytner is a dear friend of mine, and he had said about his great [1994 Broadway] production, that he should have cut that line—the famous line, ‘It’s possible for somebody to hit you very hard [sic] and not hurt you at all.’ He said he didn’t know why he didn’t cut it. Well, we did cut it. And the thing is the intensity, the crime itself, the ineffable hurt on both sides of the ledger are even more readily accessible if you don’t point it up than if you did point it up. The connection is absolutely visceral, and you get it, but it doesn’t hammer it out. And you feel for everybody. We learned a great deal about editing, about thinking of our entire audience and trying to see the show from their perspective but not in any way interfere with the greatness of the piece itself.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“There are more mistakes than there are successes, if truth be told, because a career in directing is recovering from mistakes. I think the most important two words a director needs to know is the quote ‘Fix it.’”
A good decision he made:
“To say yes to Scott Rudin.”
His future plans:
I have two productions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ahead of me: one’s the national company and one is in Australia. In the fall I’m going to go back to Lincoln Center with Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem, which I’m doing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in November. I’m happy to say that at this extraordinary end of the spectrum, I’m still employable.”